Reflection

Christine Leigh Heyrman

Robert W. and Shirley P. Grimble Professor of American History at University of Delaware

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Christine Leigh Heyrman, "Reflection," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018): jsreligion.org/vol20/heyrman.

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Long ago in what now seems like another galaxy, Jimmy Carter won the presidency, thanks in large part to sweeping the evangelical vote. Those believers were the ticket to his success, the pundits all agreed, and Newsweek magazine emblazoned that consensus (“Born Again!”) on its cover. It was the first semester of my first job, at the University of California, Irvine and my specialty—in fact, the only subject I knew much about—was New England Puritanism. That had put me on the receiving end of some bracing intellectual challenges from my colleagues in the History Department, many of whom were committed Marxists, accomplished social historians, or both. They took every opportunity to tease me about my interest in a subject so “epiphenomenal” as religion. But the morning after Carter’s election, the wittiest of the bunch—a historian of the South—stood at my office door and announced with mock contrition, “Christine, we need to talk.” He was thinking about Newsweek’s cover, of course, and at that moment I started wondering: how did the South become the Bible belt? There were so many books I hadn’t read; surely one of them had answered that question already.

 

That’s the origins story of Southern Cross, and once evangelicals colonized my imagination, there was no getting rid of them. With my next project, a study of Islamophobia in the early republic, I became intimately acquainted with a small circle of northern evangelicals who served as the first American missionaries in the Middle East. Some themes I first explored in Southern Cross migrated into that book, American Apostles (2015), particularly the pivotal role evangelicals played in the construction and performance of masculinity. But the surprising take-away from my exploration of the early foreign missions movement is how lastingly and powerfully its northern evangelical backers shaped the ways in which most Americans understood not only Islamic cultures but the entire world.

 

While taking this “global turn” on evangelicalism, I kept coming across references to, of all improbabilities, a love triangle. At its center was an aspiring young woman who found her missionary career ambitions first encouraged and then thwarted by men and women, young and old, obscure and powerful, in the North’s evangelical circles. Her romances gave rise to rumors and a richly documented scandal proved her undoing. She was not alone: women’s efforts to extend their influence beyond the household, a transformative change that began in this era, triggered a backlash from both sexes. Doomed Romance—the working title of this project—brings to light the paradoxical role played by Congregationalist and Presbyterian evangelicals who first cultivated and then tried to constrain promising, potentially powerful women. Watching one such woman’s fate unfold against this wider historical canvas takes us a long way toward understanding why the majority of northern evangelicals—even as many took radical stances in opposition to slavery and Indian removal—held back from agitating for women’s civil, legal, and political rights.

 

What I like best about Doomed Romance is its uncanny resonance with the sexual politics of contemporary America. That’s because now, more than ever, we need to talk. We, historians of religion in the South and elsewhere, should be exchanging with scholars in other fields and engaging with the public at large to explore why evangelicals have emerged yet again as key players in American politics. As every poll shows and some contributors to this discussion of Southern Cross have noted, white evangelicals form a core constituency of Donald Trump’s supporters. Not coincidentally, they are also key players in the backlash against women’s efforts to gain equal rights, equal pay, and reproductive justice and the strivings of the LGBTQ community for full protection under the law and an end to stigmatization. The legacy of the evangelical past with respect to race, gender, and sexuality is far richer, more diverse, and often more radical than many of today’s believers either realize or acknowledge. It’s our job as historians to encourage such a reckoning by bringing the perspective of the past to bear upon the vexed politics of the present.

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